The first day of class is a very important one in terms of creating community in any course. If you are teaching a hybrid course, you may have special concerns (look for marked subsections below).

In fact, you can even start building community in advance of the first day.

Start Building Community Even Before the First Day

Pre-Course Communication

If you can, it’s a great idea to communicate with your students before the semester starts by email, video, or both. Remember that you cannot ask students to do work before the semester starts. This is against federal financial aid rules. However, sending basic information to engage students is fine.

Be Personable: Introduce Yourself and Get to Know Your Students

Here are some ways you can start creating a personal connection with your students even before you meet them:

  • In an advance email or video, spend a little time introducing yourself as a person. Here are some great suggestions for welcome messages
  • Add a bio to your Canvas profile or the front page of your Canvas course so that students can “read up” on you before the semester starts. Here’s how to edit your Canvas profile. Note that you’ll need to put in a request to the tech HelpDesk if you want to change your name. 
  • Invite your students to participate in a survey or discussion forum–but remember this cannot be due before the first day.
    • Ask for pronouns and preferred names
    • Invite students to provide a picture in their Canvas profile if they do not already have one
    • Consider collecting information like majors and academic interests so you have a sense of your audience

For Hybrid and Remote: Communicating First-Day Logistics

Hybrid and remote or virtual learning experiences can vary widely. It is especially helpful to give students in these classes a clear sense of what the first day will be like.

  • Tell students how and where (if applicable) you will meet with them for the first class. This includes sending any relevant links for Meet or Zoom sessions. (We do not recommend meeting in InSpace on the first day of videoconferencing; it is an unfamiliar technology that takes a little extra time to set up.)
  • Tell students what they will need to participate fully in class on that first day, including required technology.

We recommend communicating first-day logistics information in multiple formats: via a Calendar invite and an email or Canvas announcement (preferred).

On the First Day

There are many great ways to build community with your students on the first day of your course. These are just a few.

  • Share something about yourself that gives your students insight into who you are as a person and why you’re passionate about what you’re about to help them learn.
  • Let your students know you’re human. One silver lining of the pandemic is that students and teachers are more attuned to their shared humanity, and you can harness that effect to connect with your students in a new and more personal way. 

Here are some ways for your students to get to know each other:

  • Use breakout groups to have students interview or otherwise learn about one another, and/or to collaborate on a meaningful activity related to the class. (This is also a comfortable, low-stakes way to get everyone used to the technology you’ll use for breakout groups throughout the course.) For example, you might try the “speed-dating” exercise described in this Faculty Focus article.
  • Discuss and evaluate the classroom “space” together. At the end of class, check in with students to make sure that everyone could see and hear, and (for hybrid and virtual classes) they understood the tech and logistics of the class activities. Involve students in troubleshooting, especially if you’re not a tech genius yourself. At Champlain we have the wonderful luxury of having tech-savvy students in almost every class. Solving problems together is a great way to promote student self-esteem and build community.

There are many other ways to build community on the first day – here’s a helpful list of additional suggestions from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.

First Day Follow-Up

As a follow-up to the first day, a “get to know you” discussion forum can help students connect further with one another — which can be particularly valuable for hybrid and virtual/remote classes, but benefits all students. Consider using a prompt that mixes useful information with fun, personable facts.

The first week is also a good time to send out a survey (as mentioned above) or make it due if you made it available before the semester started. Ideally by the end of the first week, you will be able to collect essential information. An alternative form for this exercise might be a letter to the instructor (if you are teaching a course where students do a lot of writing, this also gives you a sense of their preparedness).

For Hybrid and Remote: Introducing Yourself, the Course, and the Learning Space

If you always meet students in a virtual environment, you have some opportunities to get to know them in different ways.

  • Will you be Zoombombed by your dog or your toddler periodically during the semester? Introduce them on that first day and exploit their cuteness to get students interested. 
  • Do you have a poster on the wall behind you or a tchotchke on your desk that reveals something interesting about yourself? Point it out and tell its story. (Don’t ask your students to do the same thing, though – some of them may be connecting to class from places that they are not comfortable sharing with others.)

Avoiding too much lecturing on the first day can be helpful for setting the expectation that your class will be interactive. Consider not spending much of your first meeting going over the syllabus. You can do the syllabus review in advance and record an efficient video, which you can stream the first day of class or assign as homework. Follow up with a syllabus quiz and Q&A, and then use your time for more interesting and engaging activities.

* This is adapted from an “IRL” activity suggested by the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and it’s arguably even more valuable for flex-hybrid classes, which will likely require a bit more initial troubleshooting.

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